Meeting bullies are an awful fact of life.
As much as we like to think they don’t exist, they are, in fact, a common sight at many organizations.
According to the 2014 U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey, 27% of Americans have experienced abusive behavior at work. You’d think that within a public forum like a meeting you’d see less of this, but you’d be wrong.
We asked teams at PG&E, Charles Schwab and Sony about them.
“Yes, I’ve encountered a few in my career” quips Ron Olson, Project Manager at PG&E.
“The sorry fact is, many people feel they need to be right – all the time. Instead of encouraging healthy debate and checking their egos at the door, they use their position, over-confidence and assertiveness to get their way, usually at the expense of others” he adds.
So, what can you do if you find yourself staring down a meeting bully?
Take it offline
A great fallback for overly aggressive meeting participants who get out of hand is the classic strategy to take it “offline”.
This basically means to table the interruption and address it outside the scope of the meeting. This can be a very effective approach – you can acknowledge a perspective (without validating it), disarming a charged situation while quickly moving focus back to the meeting.
“Susan, that’s an interesting perspective – given that we’re talking about the project budget right now, why don’t we explore that further offline?”
Ultimately, this is something the meeting organizer should be responsible for doing, but in reality could be said by any participant.
“I’m quick to take topics offline if I detect any kind of behavior that isn’t positive” says Sarah Sullivan, IT Project Manager at Sony.
If the bully still won’t back down, point to your agenda and the time (you built an agenda and allocated time to agenda topics, right?) and remind her that you run the risk of going overtime if you continue with this discussion.
For some overly persistent bullies or those with seniority, it may be impossible to derail their rants. Move on to the techniques below.
Talk to their manager or HR
Sometimes, it can be difficult if not impossible to reign in bad behavior during a meeting. Rather than having your meeting dissolve into a shouting match, resolve to address the issue afterwards by speaking to the bullies manager.
Yes, it can be a bit daunting to go a level or two up, but senior members of your organization should be always be open to addressing behavioral issues. If their manager can’t or won’t intervene, contact HR.
And what if the bully is your manager, or, doesn’t have a manager, or your organization is too small to have an HR person or team? Then…
As difficult as it may seem, many bullies respond to the direct approach. If you feel comfortable doing so, talk to them, one on one. You can schedule a quick sit down with them in their office or in a meeting room.
The goal in a meeting like this is not to make your colleague defensive. Rather, its to point out the behavior you’ve observed, and that you’re partners in figuring out how to resolve this issue. Something like:
“Dan, I just wanted to share with you that in our meeting on Friday, you came across as being a little aggressive. I really like your passion, but it left David feeling a bit anxious. I’d love it if we could figure out how to channel some of your energy into input that’s positive.”
It may take a few sit downs and some gentle, in-meeting coaching to help steer them in the right direction, but the direct approach does work.
Jen Sullivan, a Project Manager at Charles Schwab agrees. “I will confront bullies offline, and more often than not, this approach helps tone down their aggression. Just making these people aware of their behavior helps shine a spotlight on what they’re doing.”